Get on the train/bus/in your car. Slap on a mask. Reach into your pocket. Keep London/Liverpool/Birmingham/Southampton – ALIVE!
I have a great university friend, H, whom I regularly meet for drinks. Since the ‘peri-lockdown’, we have mainly caught up on the outskirts of the capital. (H lives in north London, and I, in a north-eastern suburb.) But in advance of our rendezvous on Thursday night, I said: ‘let’s meet in London. London needs us.’
H and I decided to meet in Rake’s Bar, part of the Andaz Hotel – formerly the Great Eastern – adjacent to Liverpool Street station. My Central Line carriage was barely a quarter full. We were seated straight away at 6.30pm and served double-Happy Hour cocktails. Wandering squiffily through Spitalfields afterwards, we chose an old-style Indian restaurant. The waiters were so pleased to see us (we were the only diners) we felt embarrassed, as if we were bestowing our custom, like charity.
You could argue that this was great: a seat on the tube! A place in a swanky cocktail bar! Grateful waiters! But actually, it was really quite sad.
It took me a while after lockdown to visit central London again – my dislike of wearing a mask (particularly the resultant steamed up glasses) being far more of a disincentive than any notion of catching Covid-19. But since the end of July, I have been into town a handful of times. In August, I went on a solo trip to the National Gallery that brought me to tears – such beauty, after such a time of desolation. And, two days before meeting H, I journeyed to Spitalfields, in search of the perfect pair of DMs.
On both occasions, the streets were almost empty. Many shops and bars were still closed. Will they ever reopen, I asked myself?
On Thursday night, I posted a Facebook picture of H and myself, joking about being founder members of the KLA (Keep London Alive) campaign. We had quite a few of those blue ‘thumbs up’s’ and a few red hearts.
Then, today, I was driving, when I heard news on the radio about possible plans to introduce a version of the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ initiative – but for public transport.
The idea is that London commuters will receive a free day on the bus or the tube to help revive the city economy. A Transport For London (TFL) spokesman said: ‘This is one of a number of options being considered to help encourage people back to London in the coming months.’
It’s been widely reported that – when it comes to returning to the office – we Brits are the most Corona-shy people in Europe. A report last month from Alphawise revealed that only 34 per cent of UK employees have gone back to the office, lagging behind the rest of Europe, which averages 68%. Germany, Italy and Spain have seen return rates of around three-quarters, while France leads the way on 83 per cent.
And while the Government has denied shelving a back-to-work campaign, it’s clear that something has to happen in order to save the ‘work support economy’ – that is, the pubs, sandwich bars and dry cleaners in now-deserted offfice areas. Pret A Manger, for example, is due to shut 30 branches, and shed 1,000 jobs.
Footfall in London has languished at a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, with retail transactions down by 60 per cent. Tube ridership is down by 70 per cent. Overseas tourism is almost non-existent. All this was detailed in a 3rd September report from the Centre For London.
Small businesses are particularly at risk, says the report. Theatreland has lost an estimated 2,700 jobs. Once lost, these positions will not be easy to recreate.
‘Neither London nor the UK can afford for the West End to remain underused, and for its unique economy to falter,’ the report concluded, before calling for immediate help for the arts and entertainment sector, weekly outdoor ‘London fringe’ performances, and ‘culture vouchers’.
‘Action such as this will ensure that the West End is able to recover and continue to thrive as an economic powerhouse contributing billions in tax revenues annually, and as a vibrant, world renowned destination,’ said Jace Tyrell, chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents central London businesses.
And before you cry ‘London-centric!’ this slow death of the city centres is happening in all over the UK.
Some people – including uncancelled’s own writer, Laura Marcus – are not lamenting the Torment of the Towns, celebrating the new Working From Home culture. ’Is it any wonder, having tasted the freedom of working from home, many office workers don’t want to go back to the commuting grind?’ she wrote last week.
But it’s not just about time saved from our commute, or even cheaper coffee bills. From this writer’s view, the identity of our urban nation: its history, economy, culture – the very fabric of society, in fact – depends on our city centres continuing to thrive.
So, join H and I. Get on the train/bus/in your car. Slap on a mask. Reach into your pocket. Keep London/Liverpool/Birmingham/Southampton – ALIVE!
Photo credit: BBC News